Harlan Variations
for solo harp
Year: 2009
Duration: 10'
First Performance: 28 April 2009 Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
  Commissioned by Concert Artists Guild for harpist Bridget Kibbey

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Program Notes

Harlan Variations is named for Harlan County, KY, in the heart of southern Appalachia. Historically speaking, Harlan County is fairly significant, as it was the site of many violent labor strikes related to the coal mining industry throughout the twentieth century. Perhaps its prominence as a place of social and political unrest is at least in some part responsible for its significance in Appalachian folklore and culture, where it seems to serve as somewhat of a veritable epicenter. The famous song, Which Side Are You On?, was written by Harlan County native Florence Reece in 1931 as a response to the ongoing labor strife, and the name is mentioned again in several other songs — most notably perhaps — in the old bluegrass standard, Shady Grove.

As a native of South Carolina who spent a good part of his life in the mountains of western North Carolina and Tennessee — and as a guitarist who grew up largely in the tradition of rock and folk music — the songs of Appalachia occupy a fairly significant place in my heart. Although I am by no means an aficionado, I have always appreciated and enjoyed this music, filled as it is with colorful characters and stories that simultaneously suggest a darker side of life, often steeped in poverty and misfortune.

The piece is cast in a kind of a “crossfade theme and variations” form, although it was conceived as having a very “through-composed” sound and feel. It begins with an ornamented, minor-mode sounding “theme” that seems to ponder some of the darker and more mysterious realities suggested by Appalachian folk music, before dissolving away and ultimately transforming (over the course of several variations) into a bright harmonization of the old church hymn, When We Shall Meet. I first encountered this song on a recording, sung by a congregation from The Old Regular Baptist Church, based somewhere in eastern Kentucky (presumably), and was taken and inspired by its soulfulness.




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